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State agency lists option of closing Northern


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Montana State University officials say they are not terribly concerned about the option of closing Havre's university being listed as a way the state could save money in future budget cycles.

But they say they are prepared to show the Legislature why that should not happen.

The option was one listed in more than a hundred pages of reports written by the Legislative Fiscal Division detailing possible money-saving options.

Montana State University-Northern Chancellor Frank Trocki said he has been hearing about concerns Northern would be closed since he took his position last year. He said, with the support the Montana University System administrators, the commissioner of higher education and members of the Board of Regents have shown, he is not terribly concerned.

"I think … they were just sitting down and thinking of how they could possibly save some money in the future," he said. "It's too bad, maybe, that they mentioned Northern by name.

"My focus is on the future and on our growth," he added.

Montana State University President Waded Cruzado said this morning she doesn't believe the actual closure of Havre's university "is even on the horizon." She said she will be working with Trocki to provide any information about Northern the Legislature will want to look at.

The possibility of closing Northern was one of a multitude listed in reports by the Fiscal Division, which predicts nearly $400 million in budget shortfalls by 2013.

"This list is not exhaustive, nor is it a recommendation," Legislative Fiscal Division Director Amy Carlson wrote in the overview of the reports.

Carlson could not be reached for comment by deadline this morning.

The Legislative Fiscal Division is a state agency that provides fiscal analysis of the state government.

The ire of at least one area legislator, Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, was raised even at the possibility Northern would be closed.

"As far as I'm concerned, and as long as I'm in office, it's not even an option," Windy Boy said. "I'll fight tooth and nail to prevent this from happening. Northern plays a major role in the economics in the northern tier of the state. If Northern goes, there goes a lot of jobs in our region." Other local members of the Legislature called by the Havre Dai ly News could not be reached for comment this morning.

The options listed as possible money-savers include cutting the per-student funding in K-12 education; cutting the base funding for Montana high schools; requiring high school consolidation; consolid a t i n g Mo n t a n a S t a t e University Extension Agency services including eliminating county offices; increasing the requirements to be eligible for public defenders in criminal c a s e s ; e a r l y re l e a s e o f inmates from the state prison, eliminating funding the for the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program; and reducing Medicaid provider rates or cutting optional Medicaid services.

The options are listed in six separate reports, with an overall reference book also given.

The longest, the options in Public Health and Human Services, is 36 pages long.

The option for Northern says that Havre's university is operating at a much-higher per-student cost than other campuses in the university system.

"I t may be possible to achieve significant cost-efficiencies by closing the campus and delivering higher education services to that region of Montana via distance learning and/or at the remaining campuses," the report says.

The report goes on to say that, because the services would have to be made up at other campuses or using other delivery systems, which also would require state funding, the amount of savings is not known.

Trocki said that there is a reason Northern has a higher per-student cost: because of the type of work Northern does.

He said Northern's focus on workforce development requires a higher cost.

"You can't have 50 or 60 students in a diesel lab with one instructor," he said.

That applies to many areas, he said. For example, required student-to-instructor ratios in the nursing program also increases costs, while at the same time reducing the number of students who can take the classes.

"Of course it's going to be more expensive, Trocki said.

"I'm not sure they're comparing apples to apples. I think it may be apples to oranges." Cruzado said the approach Montana State University is taking to the option being listed will be to provide any information to show the success of Northern.

"We will include the successful effort of Northern faculty and staff to stabilize enrollment in the last few years, as well as the unique programs at MSUNorthern," Cruzado said.

"I am sure the Legislature will want to know about the enthusiasm and support the community has for new programs being developed," she added. "We are excited about the future and we are ready to assist in providing any information that is needed." ——— On the Net: Legislative Fiscal Division report: http://leg.mt. gov/css/fiscal/reports/2009-2010- interim-reports.asp


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